CANNES, France — The sun wasn't the only thing heating up the French Riviera resort town last week. Temperatures also appeared to rise around the sometimes awkward and sometimes sublime merging of data and creativity during the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
While data-driven marketing might seem like a given, its presence at the advertising industry's largest celebration of creativity was still clearly noteworthy. Before even walking into the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, the sentiment that data and creativity can feel strange bedfellows to some was evident in a large sign on a building across the street from the convention center that read: "Remember when creatives didn't 'do' data?"
With Cannes Lions arriving just over three weeks after the European Union's enactment of strict data-privacy regulations known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — forcing many marketers to reconsider how they leverage consumer information — it's no surprise data was on the mind of marketers. Indications that data's role at the conference may be getting larger showed up in what companies talked about during the many sessions held throughout the week and in some of the most celebrated work.
"Data is bigger than it ever was at Cannes," John Montgomery, GroupM's EVP of brand safety, told Marketing Dive, adding that GDPR has changed the game.
Ultimately, that sign across the street from the Palais des Festivals, which was created by customer engagement platform Braze (formerly Appboy), was delivering a positive message as the copy in French at the bottom in small type translates to say data and creatives once didn't mix, but now they are in accordance. It wasn't clear that that sentiment is universally held.
As data's role moves beyond simply tracking results or laying the foundation for consumer insight to actually transforming the infrastructure of the industry, the internal struggles this can cause was apparent in Cannes.
"The whole paradigm of data versus creativity, I think, is wrong."
During a session with leaders from Publicis, chairman and CEO Arthur Sadoun apologized for any bad feelings from the ad agency holding group's investment in Marcel, an AI platform designed to streamline collaboration and bring the agency model into the present. He also apologized for the company's now infamous announcement during Cannes last year that it wouldn't be attending this year in order to save money. While the company didn't have a presence in the form of a beach cabana, several executives were still on hand.
Publicis' decision to not have a presence was interpreted by many as a lack of support for the industry. The move to take those savings and invest them into Marcel was seen by some as the company betting on data and tech over creatives. Sadoun also apologized for the way that Marcel was rolled out, suggesting it hasn't been received well by some employees who might not understand what it does or be afraid that it would take their jobs.
Alongside the apologies and in between attempts to explain how Marcel will open up creative opportunities for employees, Sadoun also celebrated the uniqueness of the creative mind and how critical that is to advertising that breaks through and gets noticed.
In discussions at Cannes all week, Publicis was held up as one of the few examples of a company actually trying to change the traditional agency model — which is under attack on a number fronts, mostly due to digital disruption — and bring it into the present. While the Publicis session made it clear that getting widespread buy-in for Marcel, which is still in beta, is proving a challenge, the company remains committed to it.
"The question is how far can we go and how fast can we transform the world we operate in," Sadoun said during the session. "I would say that the frustration is that you have to give a deadline and show to the world — and more importantly show to your people and to your clients what you are doing. And the frustration is we are already stronger than three weeks ago. And my feeling is that we will be stronger three weeks from now."
The wrong paradigm
During a Diageo session titled "Great Marketers: Story Tellers or Data Lovers?," the beverage giant's CMO Syl Saller talked about the need to create the right conditions for creativity while leveraging data in service of it. She also pointed to research showing that 72% of marketers believe measurement is killing creativity as an example of how some in the industry need to change their thinking.
The spirits marketer for brands like Johnnie Walker and Guinness built a proprietary platform to boost effectiveness through data while aiding creativity, centralizing its marketing and increasing the speed to market. However, Saller insisted any marketer can create the right conditions for data and creativity to flourish together without proprietary tech.
"The whole paradigm of data versus creativity, I think, is wrong," Saller said. "We need to understand how people want to view and what they want to view and serve that back to them. And not make what we want to make."
Other big topics at the conference this year included the need for greater diversity within the industry and in advertising content as well as the best ways to engage social media users. Questions over the ongoing relevance of Cannes Lions were also apparent, especially in light of reports that attendance was down up to 25% this year — perhaps at least partially due to Publicis' much smaller presence.
However, during multiple discussions with executives, the point was repeatedly made that numerous critical connections are made every year at Cannes — even between companies who might be neighbors back home. Whether any of those discussions succeeded in smoothing the road for data's deeper integration into the advertising world remains to be seen.
"It's an age old question, 'Which is more important, the brilliant creative idea or the way to get it the right people at the right time and measure the results?" Susan Johnson, CMO at SunTrust bank, told Marketing Dive at Cannes. "You can't be successful without both."